When it comes to online reviews, the more, the merrier

I felt an overwhelming urge to post a review on Amazon today. I’d just finished a thriller, and wanted to give it a mixed report–it had good pacing and kept my interest, but the protagonist was so unlikable that I was rooting for him to fail. 

But in the end, I didn’t post anything. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever posted an online review. Maybe it’s empathy: As an author, I know what it’s like to receive reviews, the good, the bad, and the really ugly. So I feel shy about judging my peers in public. (I’m updating this post because my fellow writers are keeping me honest in the comments: Another reason a writer might not post a review is to avoid alienating other writers, or causing a backlash. You never know when you’re going to bump into the guy you slammed with a 1-star on Amazon.)

But I’m thinking I should change my ways. According to an article in the Economist, it’s the sheer volume of reviews–not whether they’re good or bad–that sells books.  People are much more likely to “click through” and buy a book if it has received lots of reviews, research indicates. Even when that volume includes a healthy slice of unfavorable reviews, the book still sells better. In fact, it’s better to have some negatives–readers mistrust books that have only favorable reviews.

In her MySpace blog, author Deb Baker discussed the importance of her reviews, and issued an appeal for more of them. She’s right on the money. When it comes to reviews in today’s online marketplace, volume counts.

So I’m thinking we should join together and become an army of critics. We could post reviews of all the books we’ve read to get the numbers up. Or we could find a midlist writer who has, say, only 9 reviews, and bump him into the double digits (the threshold for boosting sales).  It doesn’t matter if you liked the book or not. Just post your review.  It would be our own version of crowdsource marketing.

Do you like to post reviews, and do you think writers should post reviews about other books online? Have online reviews played a role in your book’s success?

12 thoughts on “When it comes to online reviews, the more, the merrier

  1. This is a great topic for a post! I have always shied away from reviewing. First reason: I was a journalist for many years and, therefore, couldn’t. I had to maintain objectivity. Second (and current) reason: I suppose I’m a bit afraid of backlash. I am working on my own MS right now and I want to build up readership and a community before publication. I don’t want to alienate anyone–published or not–so I don’t review. I am very honest and very critical (comes from the years in TV news!), and I like to keep it to myself.

    I suppose there is also a bit of the maxim my mother taught me (which I just repeated to my son yesterday), “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

    But your points are very valid ones. I could certainly review books I enjoyed. I like to think I do my part by hosting authors on my blog for book tours. But you are making me think…


  2. I don’t post reviews, unless it’s a rave. I don’t want to knock a fellow author (I think there may be some professional courtesy thing at work here; we all know how bad reviews sting).

    I’m skeptical of the volume theory, though. If I see a low star rating, that has an immediate effect, whether it’s 12 reviews or 120.

  3. Michele, I used to be a journalist too, and I know what you mean–it’s hard to drop that objectivity stance. But I think you and Jim have “outed” me in another real reason I don’t post reviews: I’m afraid to alienate my fellow authors. When you bump into Big Name Author at a writer’s conference, you don’t want to be the person who posted a 1-star slam on Amazon!

  4. I don’t post Amazon reviews. Part of that is because I write a dozen or more reviews a year for the New Mystery Reader web site. Another reason is, frankly, I think too many of the Amazon reviews are, well, let’s say unprofessionally written, and I often don’t trust their sources. (Mom, Sis, Wife, Husband, etc.) And there’s always the threat of unwarranted slams like those mentioned by Tess Gerritsen over at Murderati today.

    That being said, Kathryn’s post has me thinking. If the quantity of reviews really is more important than the quality, then maybe I should knock out a few lines for books I liked. I can get around the one-star slam by not saying a word.

    Thanks, Kathryn. I hadn’t thought of it that way.

  5. I am leery of Amazon reviews. Whether it’s Publish America authors reviewing each other (and themselves) or the self-appointed Amazon ‘experts’ that will leap on you in the comments section if you either question their wisdom or if they happen to disagree with you. Amazon can be a dark and scawy place all around.

  6. Kathryn,

    I couldn’t read the Economist article because you need a subscription, but I hope they considered that maybe the cause and effect is the other way around. I would surmise that the most popular books are the ones that get the most reviews, not that the books that get the most reviews become popular. Amazon is still a fairly small percentage of the bookselling market, so I wouldn’t expect the number of reviews to affect overall sales that profoundly.

  7. Like you Kathryn, I’m leery of writing reviews (unless it’s a rave). I think it’s just safer to avoid doing reviews all together:)
    Yes, I’m a wimp…I also don’t really know about the volume thing – I think it may be the circular popularity feeding more reviews that in turn feeds greater popularity (? who know?!)

  8. I only write a review of something if I really like it. Be it a book or a product, I figure silence is enough to kill a bad item. But if I really like something I will make sure to post.

    If on the other hand the writer is new and made some obvious mistakes I may write them personally with advice as to what I found displeasing. That way they can learn, but not be humiliated.

  9. Thanks for the comments! Guess I haven’t converted anyone to online reviewing, lol. But the volume thing is food for thought, if the data behind it is valid. Might be one of those strange things about human psychology and marketing. Some people might be buying where the action is.

  10. I also have never posted a negative review on Amazon. It’s tricky posting a negative review when so much about what I like or don’t like is subjective. For example aside from James Clavell’s work, I don’t generally read books set in the Orient, or the Middle East. I like Oriental people, but I want books about them to be set in San Francisco or New York. I like books set in Russia.

    Anyway, I think I feel best letting others write negative reviews.

  11. I would hate to post a bad review. Glass houses and all that. But that’s not to say other people shouldn’t. It’s good that they do.

    I’m glad to know about the volume of reviews. I try to tell everyone about books I like, but I’ve never reviewed on Amazon.

    Sounds like a good idea.

  12. John & Elizabeth, I may start posting a few reviews, but probably only favorable ones (if they’re honestly favorable). Like Jim, I’d feel the need to honor professional courtesy. I think if we all feel more comfortable leaving reviews, at least the favorable ones, it would have a beneficial effect.

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